By Girard Dorney
Country Music Family & Home.
The bent and myths of most musical genres stress individuality.
Rock stars evolved out of the blues, so they’re solitary men (and they are almost always men), playing the part of an outsider.
The convention follows that your family, if you have one, is your band.
Pop is for teenagers, and sings to their biological need to separate. All-encompassing, if not altogether complicated, love for the girl-next-door or the misunderstood boy on the other side of town doesn’t leave much room for the concerns of the home.
Country music is the exception. It has its share of rebels, but almost all care for their origins, and feel a conflicted regret for having left. Meanwhile the genre also has the likes of Loretta Lynn warning an interloping woman about a fictive but frightening Fist City, and Haggard apologising for his transgressions with ‘Mama Tried’. An absent or distant father sent blues, rock, and folk artists rambling. Country dads tell their kids – as on Conway Twitty’s ‘That’s My Job’ – “everything I do is because of you”.
So when Ashleigh Dallas decided to return to home and family for the recording of Other Side of Town, her second album, she wasn’t just doing what felt right, she was paying tribute to one of Country Music’s guiding tenets. That’s her father producing and performing, and the band that you hear on the record is the same band she plays gigs with – and they all share a surname.
Country Update spoke to Ashleigh about the album, and why she decided to record it with the people who know her best … and have seen her at her worst.
“Even when I’m writing a song when I’m away I always kind of finish it and really knuckle into it when I’m at home,” Ashleigh says. “And for this album I wanted to get back to the basics of why I started playing music in the first place. Which was the enjoyment I got out of it with my family.”
There’s a quote from Elvis Costello to the effect that you spend twenty years preparing for your first album, and six months for your second. But this wasn’t Ashleigh’s experience.
“I think I actually found it a lot easier. With my song writing I was at a different level. And it was just my family and I. So it was my dad, my brother, and my cousin. And we went into the studio and just went song for song, hell for leather. And I actually really enjoyed it and found it more rewarding for me personally.”
It’s easy enough to tell a session musician they’re not playing a song right, but saying something similar to your dad? I asked Ashleigh, half-jokingly, if that wasn’t a problem.
“Nah. It’s very honest with us. We can absolutely criticise one another and give suggestions and our ideas. And I actually feel most comfortable with that. Because I know they’re not going to tell me just what I want to hear, they’re not going to tell me it sounds amazing when really it’s just a bad song. We’re very open and can be brutally honest and not get offended by it. We know we’re all looking out for one another.”
Ashleigh’s love for her family, and the comfort she takes in their love, is obvious from her easy laugh and the way she talks about them. It’s because of them she started a life in music at age five, in her grandfather’s barn.
Australian Country in particular has a rich tradition of performing families, from the Dusty, Chambers, or Kernaghan clans to globetrotting spouses O’Shea, of which the Dallas family now certainly number. Ashleigh’s grandfather Rex is on the Country Music Roll of Renown. Beginning his career half-a-generation behind Slim, Rex started playing and yodelling in the ‘50’s, and Ashleigh’s father, Brett, learnt music at his feet.
Ashleigh winning the Qantaslink New Talent of the Year Golden Guitar at the 42nd CMAA Awards compliments her grandfather’s four wins. And new talent is right – the accomplished musician has only just reached her twenties.
Many of the songs on Other Side of Town find Ashleigh reminiscing about home and family. Album opener ‘Drive’ kicks off with a disorienting guitar riff that preludes the protagonist’s escape from heartbreak – “I’ll drive away, right out of this town”.
“It was about escaping back home,” Ashleigh tells me. “I wrote that song with my dad. For me it was about the drive out of a town that I didn’t love back to where I feel at home.”
‘Drive’ sets the tone for the album, but there was only one choice for lead single. With a hooky melody and subtle and ghostly backing vocals, ‘Fear the Dark’ explores the terror of being abandoned.
“It’s from my own experiences but it also came from listening to people’s stories. Whether it’s a breakup or the loss of a loved one, you just see that dark. You don’t see the sun. You fear that darkness. It came out really quickly – I literally finished it within half an hour. And I could hear exactly how I wanted it on the record.”
Ashleigh’s voice has matured, her skill as a vocalist being now almost as dependable as her dextrous fiddle playing. Nowhere is this burgeoning talent more apparent than album closer ‘Walk On By’. In the context of her short song writing career it stands apart as a song about being alone that isn’t sad or scared but rather defiant. It’s a harsh critique of a former associate and their betrayal.
“I noticed the change about a year ago. Secrets went by that nobody knows. They played their cards and got you inside. Then they left me out to be crucified.”
The song crests at its close with Ashleigh’s strongest vocal to date. Her voice, buffered in cracking and crashing cymbals and an artful guitar solo, soars even as it maintains its bitterness.
“I placed the song at the end of the album purposefully. I did like it to finish on saying it is okay to walk away from things you don’t like. It is okay to stand up and be strong for things you believe in.”
Sometimes artists have a particular way they like to finish an interview, parting words that sum up their latest work. I asked Ashleigh if she had any such message. She laughed. This was a homegrown album, so nothing that formal for her.
“Nah, I don’t think so. I guess I hope everyone loves it as much as I loved making it.”